A Royal Affair
In our modern age, flashing, primary-colour hedonism is applauded and admired. A Royal Affair is of a genre; cold, buttoned up 18th-century royal melodrama; that you'd think would be inaccessible to modern audiences. When pre-Age of Enlightenment Danish royalty threw a dance party, all would bob at the knees with a swanlike reserve. These days, dancing partygoers more closely resemble schizophrenic spiders than swans. So, for this film to be worthwhile, there must be something in it that resonates with modern times and whilst at face value A Royal Affair is generic (but with stunning production values), it reveals itself to have hidden political and philosophical depths that speak to and of our society.
The titular affair is one between a mentally ill Danish king, his English queen and the king’s personal doctor, Johann Struensee, set against the backdrop of the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. The film is shot in the grainy pastel style typical of the genre (even if it is executed beautifully; certain close-ups of ink on paper, cows grazing and rain falling on an outstretched hand are breathtaking). The ins and outs of this sultry affair make for a bizarre and fascinating slice of history and lend themselves perfectly to the melodrama genre, with scandal and tragedy aplenty. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard and Alicia Vikander both wear their characters as king and queen well, the former looking and behaving like a spoilt, overgrown ten-year-old; the latter a thoughtful, principled introvert. But Mads Mikkelsen as the Enlightened doctor is the heart of the film, bringing a warm charm to a character that is most appealing to a modern audience, with his forward-thinking theorising and yearning for social equality.
There is more to A Royal Affair than gratifying melodrama, though. Certain political themes bearing contemporary relevance are brought to the fore cleverly, mostly centred on the tension between the trio’s personal problems and their efforts to affect societal change on a grand scale. This constant conflict is ultimately the reason tragedy wins out. Towards the end of the film, once Struensee has won authority to implement changes to Danish law and policies, the free press he has nurtured into existence begins to destroy his image by revealing his and the queen’s cheeky ways. The common people whom he has done so much for turn against him. The film encourages us to pity him, to ask how, after all the good he has done for them, they could attack him just because of some media rumours. Sound familiar? This tying together of personal issues and is as inevitable and prevalent today as ever. If you want proof, ask Strauss-Kahn or Hilary Clinton. Dissociation between the “character” of a politician and his capacity to serve his people will never be fully made; it’s not human nature. A Royal Affair is a film that reinforces this truth, and maybe the sadness of it.
Also interesting is the fact that A Royal Affair proposes that good can come about through a non-democratic political system – not a popular suggestion in contemporary film, or popular contemporary thought for that matter. Struensee clearly was a great man who helped a great many people, yet when he tricks the King into signing away all power to edit and create new legislature to him alone it’s still nauseating, since by now democracy has been pretty much tattooed on our souls by western society. A Royal Affair won’t have you out in the streets protesting for the fall of democracy, but it gives food for thought nonetheless.